Edmond Privat, a Forgotten Friend of India

P. C. Roy Chaudhury

Dr. Edmond Privat a Swiss national was born in 1889 and after a chequered career passed away in 1962. A scholar, an esperantist, a writer and a Quaker Dr. Edmond Privat was well-known in scholastic circles of Europe and the States in his life-time. Dr. Privat rendered very great service in a silent but determined manner for winning India’s Independence. He was the President of the European Committee for India’s Independence from 1932 to 1939 and in this capacity he was Gandhi’s link with Europe and the States.

A Journalist

He started his career as a journalist but early came to grief because of his independent views. While based at Paris he wrote in journals fearlessly for Polish Independence and was literally bundled out of France because of this activity. He wrote some books also on the subject. His early education was in Cambridge University where he obtained his degree in English language and literature. It was not difficult for him to find a job as a professor of English in Geneva University. He continued in this capacity for a number of years and later joined Neuchattel University in Switzerland. It is at Neuchattel that he passed away.

Met Tagore

A great friend and admirer of the French savant Romain Rolland, he often visited Villeneuve where Romain Rolland lived. Beautiful Villeneuve on the lake was a centre of cultural activities because practically all the leading men of Humanities in Europe used to visit Roman Rolland from time to time. It was at Romain Rolland’s place that Dr. Privat met Rabindranath Tagore for the first time in 1921 during Tagore’s first visit to Switzerland. Tagore had visited Switzerland twice subsequently in 1926 and 1932. Edmond Privat had met him on both the occasions. Later Tagore had invited Privat to Shantiniketan.

With Gandhi

After the failure of the Second Round Table Conference in London in 1931 Gandhi visited Switzerland at the end of December. He went to Villeneuve and stayed with Romain Rolland for a few days. Edmond Privat had gone to Villeneuve to meet Gandhi. Both were attracted to each other at the very first meeting. Privat and Romain Rolland arranged Gandhi’s tours and lectures in Switzerland. Privat offered to act as Gandhi’s interpreter in all the meetings. Gandhi addressed several meetings in different parts of Switzerland and Dr. Privat worked as the interpreter. As a Quaker and a worker for Freedom for Poland there was a great common area of thought between him and Gandhi. Gandhi’s creed was particularly acceptable to Dr. Privat because of his earlier career. He was an admirable agent for propagating Gandhi’s ideas to Europe and the States.

Privat accompanied Gandhi to Rome where a meeting between Gandhi and Mussolini was fixed. Privat had to do a lot of silent home work to bring the two with opposing views on life and the world together. In the interview Privat worked as the interpreter.

Visits India

The original idea was that Dr. Privat and his wife Yvonne would return to Geneva from Rome. But Gandhi was quite taken up with the Privats and asked them to accompany him to India. Dr. Privat told Gandhi that as a professor in ordinary circumstances it was difficult for him to undertake the expenditure for going to India. He also said that he had to take the permission of the Home Government before he could do so. Gandhi laughed at this idea and said that a trip by the deck along with him would not be very costly and his Home Government was with him (pointing to Yvonne Frivat). Having lost the argument Dr. Privat had to rush about in Rome arranging for passport and money. He joined Gandhi and came to Bombay by S. S. Pilsna. The Privats had a very enjoyable time on boat with Gandhi and his party. One day Gandhi suddenly remembered about the rag dolls that some children at the East End of London had presented him. Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s Secretary, assured Gandhi that the dolls were being taken in the baggage and would be taken out in Bombay. Gandhi briefed the Privats regarding their stay in India. He drew up a list of dos and do nots for them. He told them that there was every likelihood of arrest soon after his landing in Bombay but Dr. Privat should continue his sojourn and visit the different cities of India and study the Independence movement launched by him. He wrote out the following letter as a sort of passport for the Privats to all Congressmen in India : —

“To whom it may concern

Mons. Privat and Madame Privat are friends of India living in Switzerland. They have purposely come to India to study the country and the modern movement. I expect all Congress men who may come in contact with them to assist them and render to them whatever service it is possible to render to them.(1-1-1932).

There was a huge crowd of people to meet Gandhi at Bombay and he was whisked away. The Privats were left in the lurch and typical of a professor he had even forgotten to make an inquiry where Gandhi was being taken. They were fumbling at the port when a kindly gentleman asked them if they wanted any help. The Privats told him that they had come with Gandhi but had lost him. The gentleman smiled and took them in his vehicle and dropped them at Mani Bhawan where Gandhi was staying. When the Privats arrived there was a big crowd surrounding Gandhi at the terrace of the house. Gandhi laughed and asked them where the Babes in the Wood had strayed into. Since that day Gandhi often addressed Dr. Privat’s wife in his letters as the Babe in the Wood.

Soon after Gandhi was arrested and taken away by the Police. Before Gandhi’s arrest he had extracted a promise from Dr, Privat that he would form an European Committee for India’s Independence and act as its Chairman.

The Privats fulfilled the programme of visiting particular places and contacting particular men as drawn up by Gandhi. They went to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmadabad and stayed there for about a week. They came in close contact with a number of men and women at the Ashram and were much impressed by their dedication to the cause and particularly by the way they carried on during Gandhi’s arrest as a matter of routine. They visited a number of other places, namely, Calcutta, Agra, Mathura, Delhi, Banaras, Madras and Mahabali Puram. Apart from seeing the sites they particularly studied the Congress movement at these places. They visited Shantiniketan. Their conversation with Rabindranath Tagore left a deep impression on both the parties.

Dr. Privat went back to Switzerland and organised the European Committee for India’s Independence and worked faithfully as the Chairman for seven years in this capacity. He carried on correspondence with noteable personalities in different parts of the world advocating India’s cause. Lectures and meetings were frequently organised which were addressed by Dr, Privat and others. He worked in collaboration with the Indian Independence League which was nursed by Mr, Krishna Menon in London and there were some joint conferences. He was considerably helped in this work by the Friends’ Society in London and a few other missionaries and politicians in England and in the States. He kept Gandhi informed of the work done and Gandhi also had frequent correspondence with the Privats. Dr. Privat was very ably helped by his wife Yvonne who was a student of Psychology before she married and kept on her interest in the subject after marriage too.

Dr. Privat wrote a number of books in French to propagate Gandhi’s ideas. His book, Aux Indes Avec Gandhi about his journey in India had a good sale. He sponsored a series of books in French on the Indian Independence Movement some of which were written by Camille Drevet, Mare Semenotf and others. Some books on Gandhism by K. Mashr and Kumarappa weie translated in this scries. Dr. Privat also had Nehru’s Discovery of India translated in French and published. Another book of Privat's on Gandhi, Vie de Gandhi projected Gandhi to the French knowing public very well. It became a standard book for all who wanted to know India in recent years. This book was published after Gandhi’s death. A mass of documents including correspondence of extreme importance to India were left by Dr. Edmond Privat when he passed away in 1962. His wife has willed away all these documents to a Biblotheque near Neuchattel. She assured me when I saw her at Neuchattel recently that some of the documents are very important and India should be interested in them.

Gandhi carried on correspondence with the Privats till his death. Before Gandhi undertook the Epic Fast in 1933 he had written the following to the Privats :—

“My dear Anand and Bhakti,

I had your letter on the eve of the step I am about to take, this is just to send you both my love.



Gandhi's last letter to Privats written shortly before his death suggests the cross currents in Gandhi's mind at that particular time. In this letter Gandhi conceded that he had made some mistakes. An extract of his letter is as follows : —

Coming to my own personal experience, whilst we undoubtedly got through passive resistance our political freedom, over which lovers of peace like you and your good husband of the West are enthusiastic, we are daily paying the heavy price for the unconscious mistake we made or better still, I made in mistaking passive resistance for nonviolent resistance. Had I not made the mistake, we would have been spared the humiliating spectacle of weak brother killing his weak brother thoughtlessly and inhumanly.

The news of Gandhi’s death was brought to the Privats in a pointed manner. It so happened that a public meeting had been organised at Neuchattel where Dr. Privat was to speak on Gandhi and Non-violence. A few hours before the meeting Dr. Privat received a cable from Washington in which the sender expressed his greatest sympathy with the Privats in their loss. The Privats could make nothing of that cable. They were thinking of wiring back to find out the meaning when on the wireless they heard about Gandhi’s death fiom bullets. I learnt from Mrs. Privat, that Dr. Privat sat still in his small study room for a considerable time. The telephone tinkled and there was an anxious enquiry from the organisers if the meeting would be abandojned. They knew Dr. Privat’s relationship with Gandhi and thought that Dr. Privat would not be able to address the meeting under such tragic circumstances. Dr. Privat replied back that he was fully prepared for the meeting which must not be cancelled. His wife told me that he spoke most feelingly for about an hour and there was hardly a single person in the crowded hall that was not moved to tears. Many ladies had fainted away in the meeting and had to be carried out. Dr. Privat spoke as an inspired man and mentioned that Gandhi had served the world through a martyr’s death.

Dr. Privat’s interest in India did not abate with India’s Independence. He kept himself extremely well posted with India as I found many post-independence books in his personal library at Neuchattel. For thirty long years he had faithfully served India in many ways. He was one of the true foreign friends of India.

Tagore - Privat

SOURCE: Chaudhury, P. C. Roy. "Edmond Privat, a Forgotten Friend of India," The Modern Review [Calcutta, founded by Ramananda Chatterjee], Vol. CXX-IX, No. 1 (Whole No. 775), July, 1971, pp. 9-12. Letter facsimile, p. 10.

Pri Esperanta Literaturo” de Edmond Privat

El Projektata Alvoko al Kongreso por Neŭtrale-Homa Religio
de L. L. Zamenhof / Edmond Privat

Konsideroj pri Gandhi
de George Orwell, tradukis William Simcock

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo al Esperanto & Interlingvistiko


The Modern Review [Calcutta]
Vol. 128-129, January-December 1971

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 5 April 2021

Site ©1999-2021 Ralph Dumain